One of the things I like to emphasize is that the Bible is (Divine) literature, and as such should be understood and interpreted “literally” that is in accordance with way in which we normally understand or interpret any piece of literature. A while back, during a Christian education class, I had the opportunity to talk about biblical metaphors and the necessity of there being at least some similarity between the thing described and the metaphorical description. Therefore, it would do little good to make a point about my disposition by the use of a metaphor that did not have some point of similarity. For instance, you could not say, “Rogers’ head is as hard as a rock, if I am known to be of a supple and yielding disposition. Metaphors must have some point of contact if they are to get any traction.
Let me bring this to bear on Jesus’ description of John as “a reed shaken by the wind” (found in Luke 7.24). I suggest this is a rhetorical question; one that expects the answer to be “yes”. So, it is fair to ask what Jesus meant by comparing John to a reed.
A good place to start is to examine the context of the event Jesus is referring to, that is the ministry of John the Baptist. We need not go very far into the story of John to see the point for whatever else we may say about John, and his ministry, his name says it all. He was a baptizer. John came preaching a baptism for the remission of sins, and he came preaching and baptizing people who were already in a covenantal relationship with YHWH. Another important thing about John is that he was an Old Testament prophet. He was the Elijah of Malachi 4, which means that the baptism is an old covenant event. This brings me nearly to my point and to Jesus’ metaphor.
First, though, I want to think about some the things that attended the inauguration of the Old Covenant. One of the places we can look to is Exodus 24 and the ritual confirmation of the Old Covenant by the blood that was thrown on the people, probably what Hebrews 12. 24 refers to as “The Blood of Sprinkling”. Now to get to the point about John we need to put ourselves in the place of Moses. How do you throw blood on so many people? Well the answer is (probably) that you don’t throw it, but you sprinkle it, or better yet you throw/sprinkle it by some mechanical means and in this instance, like others (for instance Leviticus 14.6), the mechanism was a piece or a rod (kanon) of hyssop. The Old Covenant was inaugurated by sprinkling.
Which brings us back to Jesus’ metaphorical description of John.
Jesus could compare John to a reed because John, in accordance with other Old Covenant inauguration/ purification/renewal rites was baptizing by sprinkling the nation, and was sprinkling them with a reed of hyssop.
There was however, an important difference. For John’s baptism is also related, typologically, to ours, through Jesus. Prior to Jesus’ baptism, John’s baptism was an Old Covenant event. That is though not true of Jesus’ baptism, for at his baptism Jesus becomes (officially) the forerunner, the first man of the New Covenant, The Second Adam. So, just as The Old Covenant was inaugurated by the sprinkling of the people, so also was the New by the sprinkling of the covenant head, The New Israel, Jesus. Therefore, the (expected) answer to Jesus’ question was this: No. John’s reed was not shaken by the wind, but by the Holy Spirit.